Milwaukeeans are blessed for an innumerable amount of reasons with being located directly on one of the Great Lakes (just ask Waukesha). But while we know our city is at the confluence of only 3 rivers, and (thanks to The Couture) we now know the legal borders of Lake Michigan, many don’t know that downtown borders not only 1, but 2 lakes.

Northwestern Mutual buildings in East Town, Milwaukee, WI located directly above Lake Emily. All photos by Joe Powell for The Squeaky Curd unless otherwise noted.

In the image above you see Lake Emily as she appears today. Well, that’s not exactly precise: you can see the 1912 Northwestern Mutual building on the left and the 2017 headquarters on the right. Though OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo was once granted an expedition into the bowels of the 1912 building to get within 4 feet of Lake Emily, this panoramic view is about as close as we average Milwaukeeans can get; a dozen or so meters above her tepid waters.

Lake Emily as illustrated from an article in The Milwaukee Sentinel, courtesy of MKEGhosts.

Shortly after the fledgling Juneautown became a unified Milwaukee, the city completed its first lighthouse perched on a notably low bluffline at the head of what is now Wisconsin Avenue. This lighthouse was eventually moved a few miles up to a more suitable bluff, what’s now the North Point Lighthouse. At the time, however, the downtown bluffs were being graded so as to level out the uneven marsh-to-hill shoreline. With the infill, Wisconsin Avenue was raised some 3 feet (according to a Milwaukee Sentinel article from February 17, 1898). It may have been this fluctuating uneven land that caused a sort of swimming hole to form with runoff between Cass and Van Buren Streets, referred to (without modern explanation) as Lake Emily.

Lake Emily as illustrated from an article in The Milwaukee Sentinel, courtesy of MKEGhosts.

Though Lake Emily could today be likened to those runoff ponds you see around each new office park or suburban development, it was at the time at least large and deep enough so that it “afforded the boys of that period scope for aquatic sports, such as swimming, rafting and the sailing of miniature vessels and steamers.” Reports exist that fish were even introduced to the large pond for sport.

Shortly after it had formed, the growing city of Milwaukee attempted to fill Lake Emily in and build atop her. Varying levels of success occurred, with The Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet reporting on May 9, 1952 reporting that Lake Emily was actually connected to an underground river leading to the lake (a 4th river?!). In the early 1900s, with no solution devised for permanently displacing the water, Northwestern Mutual instead engineered their headquarters as a sort of “floating” building.

This hole outside NWM was not deep enough to strike Lake Emily.

Like many downtown Milwaukee buildings, the Northwestern Mutual headquarters is held partially up by submerged wooden pilings. Along with these pilings, a thick concrete slab was poured over the existing Lake Emily, and in around 1905 Milwaukee’s second lake saw daylight for the last time.

Today, Lake Emily still preserves the wood pilings supporting the original NWM building (along with some help from rainwater runoff and sprinklers). Though it can’t be accessed directly anymore, in 2013 Lake Emily again made itself known by costing NWM an additional $5.5 million in construction costs to help build their new high-rise on ““Lake Emily” as [Steve Radke, V.P. of Governmental Relations for Northwestern Mutual] referred to it“.

Approximate location of Lake Emily in Milwaukee, WI. Screenshot taken by Joe Powell of The Squeaky Curd from Google.

Next time you hear someone quip the oft-heard phrase “it’s cooler by the lake” when referring to Milwaukee, know that it should be “lakes“. Give Lake Michigan’s baby sister, Lake Emily, her due: she may not be a Great Lake, but she’s still Milwaukee’s.

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